Bay County begins the long climb toward the top of Florida’s STEM career preparation rankings, where Seminole County awaits

With an audience of about a hundred FSU physics professors and students looking on, Seminole County high school physics teacher Luther Davis climbed up on a table at the front of the Physics Department’s lecture hall to describe a visit to his classroom by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Luther was a member of a panel of four present and past high school physics teachers who had come to FSU in October of 2015 for a discussion about teaching. As the professors and students listened, Luther described how the members of the governor’s security detail seemed to get jumpy and reach for their weapons when Luther did the same thing – climbing on a table – to make a point to the governor about the power of teachers in the lives of students.

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During a panel discussion at FSU’s Physics Department in October 2015, Lake Mary High School’s Luther Davis describes Governor Scott’s visit to his classroom, and the reaction of the governor’s security detail when Luther climbed on a table in his classroom.  Looking on at left is Rutherford’s Rachel Morris.  Godby High School 2015-16 Teacher of the Year Zondra Clayton is at the far right, and UCF’s Physics Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee is next to Zondra.  This blogger is in the middle.

Luther teaches physics at Seminole County’s Lake Mary High School, where two-thirds of the students take physics. Seminole County is Florida’s strongest school district for high school math and science, and Luther is one of four physics teachers at Lake Mary. He is so charismatic and so involved in the life of Lake Mary High School that he won the highest national award for math and science teachers – the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching – in 2005. It came with a trip to the White House to meet then-President Bush.

While Luther spoke about Governor Scott’s visit to his classroom, another panel member – Bay County’s Rachel Morris – looked on. Rachel was also recognized by Governor Scott:  she received one of the governor’s “Shine” awards for teaching during a cabinet meeting in December of 2014.

When Rachel told the physics audience about her experience at Bay County’s Rutherford High School, the story was quite different from Luther’s. The month before, at the beginning of the Fall 2015 semester, Rutherford had scheduled only one physics class – a section with 14 students to be taught by Rachel, who mostly teaches geometry and other math classes. But the school was struggling to cover all the necessary math classes, and the Rutherford administration informed Rachel that her physics class would be cancelled so that she could teach another section of geometry.

Instead of giving up her physics class and the opportunity for the 14 registered students to be well prepared for college majors in science and engineering, Rachel agreed to give up her planning period, so that instead of having six classes and a planning period each day she would have seven classes and no planning time. She survived the 2015-16 school year like that, and as a result her 14 physics students went off to college much better prepared for STEM careers.

It would be easy to end this story by making the observation that while Seminole County is Florida’s best district in preparing high school students for STEM careers, Bay County is on the other end of the spectrum – the dismal end. But every algebra student knows that the slope of a line is an important quantity, and right now Bay County’s slope is steep – and positive. At last report, Rachel will have 25 students in her Rutherford High School physics class this fall, almost twice what she had last year.

A few other Bay County high schools are showing similar or greater growth in physics enrollment. Mosley High School started last fall with six physics students, but this fall they are starting with 37. Bay High School physics teacher Nancy Browne will have a full schedule of physics classes this fall for the first time ever. Bay High School will have about a hundred physics students this fall – about the same number as the entire Bay County school district had last year. In all, Bay County will have about twice as many physics students this fall as it did last spring.

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From left, Bay High School’s Nancy Browne, Rutherford High School’s Rachel Morris and Mosley High School’s Sean O’Donnell wrestle with the relationship between the electric potential and the electric field

The growth in physics enrollment in Bay County is not an accident. Bay and Mosley High Schools conducted concentrated recruiting drives aimed at both students and parents to attract more students to physics. Mosley’s effort was actually broader than physics – counselors, teachers and administrators worked to get more students into chemistry, precalculus and calculus classes as well. At Rutherford, Rachel contacted individual students over the summer to make sure that those who had expressed interest in physics last spring actually ended up enrolled in her physics class this fall.

The Bay County effort to draw more high school students into advanced math and science classes coincides with the district’s entry into the National Math and Science Initiative’s College Readiness Program, which rewards students and teachers for success in AP math, science and English courses and provides tutoring and Saturday sessions. The 2016-2017 school year is the first for Bay County’s participation in the program.

FSU President John Thrasher decided to further pump up Bay County’s physics program by purchasing $40,000 worth of physics lab equipment and lending it to teachers at Bay, Mosley and Rutherford High Schools. FSU has a branch campus in Panama City.

While the physics teachers in Bay County are working hard to attract more students to their classes, the teachers at Lake Mary High School are doing the same to maintain the central position that physics occupies in the school’s academic program. Luther Davis’ unique high school astronomy class interests many students, but since physics is a prerequisite for the astronomy class it drives physics enrollment as well. Lake Mary teachers have physics shows at halftimes of the school’s football games, and Luther is a football game announcer. So while physics is an integral part of the fabric at Lake Mary High School and other Seminole County high schools, the physics teachers constantly work hard to keep it that way.

Even with a strong rate of improvement, Bay County has a long way to go to catch up to math and science superpower Seminole. With the doubling in physics enrollment this fall, Bay County’s rate will still be a factor of six behind Seminole’s. And the gulf between the two school districts isn’t limited to physics. Seminole enrolls high school students in chemistry at double the rate that Bay does. Bay is a factor of two behind Seminole in precalculus enrollment rate, and a factor of four in calculus enrollment rate.

But the determination of teacher-leaders like Rachel Morris and the support of the district administration in Bay County is a bright ray of hope for the district’s students.

It will take years for Bay County to catch up to Seminole County, but as long as Bay County’s math and science achievement slope remains positive the Panhandle school district will have a chance.

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